Child Abuse – The Nigerian Almajiri Child in Focus

by Stella John

This article is further to mine published on African Women Lawyers’ Association(AWLA) Booklet in commemoration of the African Child 2017 and edited by O. Ajayi, T. Oke & N. Aideyan page 10 – 11. Some, perhaps, will be wondering why the concern for the Child (I just published an article entitled: Girl Child and Sex Education in commemoration of the International Day of the Girl Child October 11, 2022). To many, the child may be a person who, after all, has no mental capacity and contributes virtually nothing to the State apart from adding to Demography. Why much ado about a category of human species that is totally dependent, a liability? However, the truth is that every nation being a community of human persons was a child. The Child is the father of every nation. For instance, Nigeria’s founding fathers were children. Hence, their upbringings, exposures, indoctrinations received, experiences at infancy formed their personalities and inevitably, their personalities impact on the Society. The state of a nation is a direct function of her Jurisprudence with regards to her children. There is no doubt that the Child is a major pillar of any nation. It follows therefore that all times, conscious efforts must be made to prevent the abuse of any child. That is why  Orphanages are established to ensure that no child is denied of care and it matters not if he or she is born in a family setting or not or is  born or found on the streets.  

The United Nations(UN), in its universal declaration of fundamental human rights, emphasises the imperative need for the child to grow in a family environment of love, happiness and care. Hence, those Orphanages are structured and run in environments in the similitude of family settings. The position of the UN in advocating for child upbringing in a family environment is validated by the Story of the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ. According to the Holy Writ, Virgin Mary was not conceived of the Infant Jesus by Sex but by the Power of the Holy Ghost in fulfilment of Old Testament Prophecies. It follows therefore that Mary could have had that child without a husband figure in her life. Yet, God in His Infinite Wisdom thought it wise to have Jesus begotten and raised within a family setting. The raising of the child in a family unit is to facilitate the healthy development of the potentialities and characteristics of the child which shall ultimately benefit the Society – UNICEF 2001, 2003.  Hence, no sane Nation will condone the sight of minors on the streets or the abuse of minors. Child Abuse is a setback on nation building as also observed by OTEH, CHUKWUEMEKA O, OGBUKE, MARTHA UCHENNA and IHERIOHANMA, E. B. J in their article entitled: ‘CHILD ABUSE AS A SETBACK ON NATION BUILDING: A STUDY OF EZZA COMMUNITY IN EBONYI STATE, NIGERIA’. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights also recognises that all fundamental human rights are equally the rights of children but to what extent do children enjoy those rights? This paper will nevertheless narrow down to the peculiar case of the Nigerian Almajiri Child. 

Before I proceed, let me touch on the legal status of the child. The New Webster’s Dictionary of English Language, International Edition defines ‘Status’ as “position, rank, or social standing, prestige.” Black’s Law Dictionary, 2nd edition defines the status of a person as his legal position or condition. Now, where it is agreed that the Child goes to the roots, foundations and general welfare of any nation, what status has both the Nigerian Grund Norm – the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999(As Amended) and the Child Rights Act 2003 conferred on the Child? I wish to remind us that it is trite that the child is in his formative phase of life, totally dependent on care givers, inferior, vulnerable in all respects and further disabled by absence of mental capacity. It follows therefore that the disability of the child necessitates the enactment and scrupulous enforcement of special Laws in defence of the Child. The Child Rights Act 2003 in parimateria with Child Rights Law 2015 of Lagos State opens in S. 1 thus: “As from the commencement of this Law, every action concerning a child undertaken by any Individual, Public, or Private Body, Institution, Court of Law, Administrative or Legislative Authourity, the best interest of the child must be the primary consideration.” Critically construing this provision, I am compelled to argue that it does appear that the best interest of the child comes to issue only “…in every action concerning a…” particular child is undertaken by anybody. I think that this is a highly conservative, ossified and closed approach to child issue. The Law does not keep in view the interests of the child in general terms and in all circumstances such as in War, Insurgency, unpalatable circumstances of birth, and even in matters of allocation of funds by the Executive Committee of the Federation or of each State et cetra(etc). In the course of this study, I learnt that originally, there was an assumption that adults, and parents in particular had the best interests of the child at heart. There was thus no necessity to think in terms of children’s rights as concerns of the State. Hence, the grim realities on ground were ignored. This was submitted by Prof. M. A. Ajomo(former Director-General, Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies) and Isabella Okagbue as they culled from “Limits of Children’s Rights” in the Ideologies of Children’s Rights, M. Freeman and P. Veerman eds(Martins Njiboff Publishers, 1992) page 30.  They further posit that in recent times especially from 19th century, children have “become a constituency in their own right on whose behalf Laws have been enacted providing for protection against the abuse by parents and adults, economic exploitation and social neglect…” For the almajiri child, it is not in dispute that the parents and adults abandon them to the streets. The question is whether the almajiri is not a part of this legal constituency. Is he not supposed to be a beneficiary of the municipal and international Laws enacted for the child?  

“To me, a nation is its children”. This is the opening statement of the Abstract of my Project entitled: ‘CHILD ABUSE IN NIGERIA USING ALMAJIRI FACTOR/CHILD AS A CASE STUDY’ which Project was in partial fulfilment for the award of Bachelor of Law (LL.B) Degree… Yes, it is alleged and or recorded that India has the largest population of street children in the world… Please see Arxind Ganasen in his paper ‘Police Abuse and Killings of Street Children in India’ copyright (a) November 1996, Human Rights Watch, Library of Congress Catalog November 96 – 077861. However, I must mention that in Africa, Nigeria, the Giant of Africa and one of the leading crude oil and gas owners in the world hosts the largest population of street children(almajiri) and especially in Northern Nigeria! The exclamation mark is owing to the fact that Nigerians of this extraction have held political power and control for decades over and above all other sections of the heterogeneous Nigeria. A conundrum indeed.

Let me state that from my studies, originally and historically, Almajiri System is alleged to refer to the Qur’anic learning system of education. It refers to Literacy – a Qur’anic literacy programme otherwise called Tsangaya…Hence, before the advent of British colonialism in mid-nineteenth century, the students and or those involved in Tsangaya were the scribes. According to some populists, the system got decimated by the introduction of Western Education and Civilisation in Nigeria by the Colonial Masters. Conversely and in contemporary times, the almajiri child is now very abused, exposed to all forms of neglect and even danger. In fact, the most abused person in Nigeria, he is left to wander the streets having dirty plates in hand, begging for food and alms, sleeping in the open, left beaten by both sun and rain, infested/molested by flies of all sorts, dressed up in dirty rags, without any hope of formal modern education and Civilisation. Depraved, isolated, ostracised and yet, supposed citizens of the most populous and supposedly richest African country. The dangerous truth is that the almajiri child cannot remain a child. He must assume the age of majority. And then, at this point of development, what then becomes his fate in this ever changing and dynamic world especially in Africa? How does he then impact on the rest of us and the polity? Your fears are as good as mine in the face of the current security challenges et al. 

As we speak and sadly, the Child Rights Act 2003 SUPRA enacted by the Federal Government of Nigeria to reduce child abuse in the country is allegedly yet to be domesticated by eleven (11) States in the North namely, Adamawa, Bornu, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Bauchi, Gombe, Jigawa, Sokoto, Yobe and Zamfara. One Okon Bassey in Uyo, in his article published on THISDAY www.thisdaylive.com ten months ago and entitled: ‘ELEVEN STATES YET TO DOMESTICATE the CHILD RIGHTS ACT’ reports that in a press briefing by the President of the Pediatrician Association of Nigeria(PAN), Dr. Edward Alikor to mark the 52nd/53rd Annual General Meeting/Scientific Conference themed: ‘Child Abuse: An Escalating Menace in Nigeria’ decried that ugly state of affairs and said that the inability of the 11 Northern States to domesticate the Child Rights Act was a serious issue to the Pediatrician Association since the fundamental principle of the association is to look after children and their welfare wherever they are in the country. 

Unfortunately, as posited by Cohen John in Re Carlton (1945)1, Ch, 372 on the meaning of Child, the meaning of the word ‘child’ must in every case depend on the context in which it appears. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in Article 1 defines child as person below the age of 18 years, unless under the law applicable to the child, age of majority is attained earlier. And I posited and still posit that that these two positions leave the child or the ‘young’ to the whims and caprices of any given society or culture. The world governing body, the UN, I posit, should amend its laws to take a definite position as to the age of majority to be adopted by member nations in order to avoid minors assuming their legal status or age of majority by the whims, idiosyncrasies, Norms and Laws of various ethnic and religious nationalities. I do not think, considering the vulnerability of the Child, it is safe to leave the meaning of Child to hinge on the context in which it appears and to accommodate that the age of majority can be attained earlier as any Law deems it fit. 

Most interestingly, the Sultan of Sokoto, in 2017, I suppose, declared that the almajiri, as it now stands, is unislamic and he is very correct as from study in the course of my writing of the Project aforestated, I found that the Qur’an clearly prohibits any form of Child Abuse! Speaking at the NBA IKEJA Seminar 18th May, 2017 on ‘Protecting the Rights of the Vulnerable in our Society’ and expositing on Domestic Violence,  Professor Ernest Ojukwu, SAN, the keynote Speaker mentioned that he learnt from reliable sources, that there is no one Fulani child that is almajiri. On my own part and discussing with a Hausa native in Abuja some years back, I was told that no indigenous Hausa child is almajiri. Hmm. Who then is the almajiri child and where does he hail from? This rhetoric is what the authourities and peoples of Nigeria must unravel.

Aside the rhetoric posed above, it is a notorious fact that the almajiri child is manifestly seen and found in Nigeria especially Northern Nigeria albeit seen in Southern Nigeria in recent times and his status/condition negates the provisions of the Child Rights Act, 2003 and International Conventions on the Child. The Rights of the Child are Human Rights and Human Rights are Fundamental Rights. And the Rights of the African Child, nay the Nigerian Child are not exceptions whether the Child is in Northern or Southern Nigeria and or whether the Child is in a War Setting as found in the Nigerian/Biafra War of 1967 to 1970 or in the insurgency environments of North East Nigeria or other bandits/terrorists controlled Northern areas (etc).

Education, one of the Rights of the Child for example, fundamentally refers to the Child and the young given the Dictionary meaning of Education which, essentially, is to draw out/harness the God Given potentials of the Child and the young. It follows therefore that the almajiris’ lack of access to functional education robs Nigeria of their potentialities and natural endowments thereby causing a setback to nation building and development. I must mention the position of the Court in Archbishop Olubunmi Okogie(as he then was) v. Attorney General of Lagos State (1981)2 NCLR 337. The Court held that the Fundamental Objectives Provision of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 contained in Chapter II are subsidiary to the Fundamental Human Rights Provisions of Chapter IV of the Constitution. It is not in dispute that regrettably, the Nigerian Grund Norm, the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria(CFRN) 1999(As Amended) expressly pronounces Chapter II non justiciable. That is, no action is permitted to be brought in Court challenging the government or any authourity for breaches against its provisions. Whilst the Nigerian Constitution divides human rights into two categories: civil and political rights expressly justiciable under Chapter IV, the economic, social, and cultural rights under Chapter II are rendered as mere flesh by reason of Section 6(6)(c) of the CFRN which strips the Judiciary of its inherent powers in matters therein.  The paradox is this: In S. 14(2)(a) under Chapter II, the Constitution, in furtherance of pursuit of democracy and social  justice declares that  “sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria from whom government through the Constitution derives all its powers and authourity;” Under same Chapter II, section 17(3)(f), the Constitution provides that “children, young persons and the aged are protected against any exploitation whatsoever, and against moral and material neglect;” Now, the same child who is an integral part of the people of Nigeria to whom the Constitution concedes Sovereignty is handicapped by S.6(6)(c) of CFRN which, I would say, makes  Chapter II voidable. Of what use is a right or interest which breaches cannot be interrogated by the Judiciary at any time material? And  is the almajiri child, if he is a citizen strictu sensu, ipso jure, ipso facto not being morally and materially neglected as most Nigerian children contrary to Constitutional provisions? Won’t it be right to say that as concerning the glaring peculiarities of the almajiri child, the State is also directly and indirectly responsible for his abuse? Education is an inherent Right of every Child and functional and productive Education is KEY. Functional and productive Education is key if a nation must be worth her salt and compete favourably in various endeavours of life in the Comity of Nations and for Africa, to move from the Third World Bracket to the First, which feat, has been achieved by Japan and most Asian countries. 

The continued non- justiciability of Chapter 2 has resulted in a lack of development  and non-accountability by the government” according to Femi Falana, SAN in his VIEWPOINT on ‘Justiciability of Chapter Two of 1999 Constitution(As Amended): Need for the Nigerian Judicial System to be more Proactive’ published in Vanguard March 3, 2022 www.vanguardngr.com. The learned Silk and human rights activist further observes that for the right to exist/live to make any meaning, the human being also needs socio-economic rights for the realisation and enjoyment of right to exist. “in other words”, in the words of the learned SAN, “the right to health is connected to political, economic and social welfare and safety of all citizens of Nigeria.” Is the almajiri child a Nigerian citizen in all ramifications? If the answer is in the affirmative, then, it becomes absolutely imperative to make Chapter 2 enforceable as “its enforceability”, Femi Falana continued, “is crucial for sustenance of Nigeria. The lack of which may result in human insecurity, widespread diseases and endemic infections, lack of access to health care, all resulting in deprivation, as well as retarded economic development and poor standard of living.” Is Nigeria faring well within the Comity of Nations? Is she competing favourably in the international market in the face of absurd non-enforceability of the very sacrosanct Chapter II of the Constitution? What is the intention of the law makers in providing for the Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy in Chapter II and in another breath, expressly providing for their non-enforceability? Is there any sane clime in the global village that has such a Law in this 21st century? 

I repeat. A nation is its children. Thus, the child is superior to and above all interests. The almajiri child is no exception being found on the African soil. As we continue to celebrate the Day of the African Child and or the International Day of the Girl Child or whatever relating to the Child anytime in the History of Man, let us have this in mind and be properly guided. The status of the Child including the almajiri child and how treated by the State have a directing bearing on nation building and the moral, spiritual, physical, economic, fiscal, social health of any nation. 

STELLA JOHN 

jonniestella@gmail.com; stelljohn@nigerianbar.ng  

A lawyer, a music minister and Chairman, PEREZGLOBAL FOUNDATION 


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